Student Voice


September 26, 2023


Light Rain


Gender stereotyping among students

March 13, 2019

From gender reveal parties utilizing blue or pink before the baby is even out of the womb, to early childhood birthday celebrations and nursery decor, gender stereotypes have influenced how men and women view the world. Little girls may have found themselves with an abundance of colorful Barbie dolls and friendly-faced My Little Ponies, while young boys were gifted Nerf guns and Hotwheels. These toys, and many other aspects of childhood, are based on gender stereotypes.

Nathan Riel-Elness is the gender and sexuality outreach coordinator at UW-River Falls. (Kacey Joslin/Student Voice)
Nathan Riel-Elness is the gender and sexuality outreach coordinator at UW-River Falls. (Kacey Joslin/Student Voice)

Nathan Riel-Elness is a member of the UW-River Falls campus Center of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. He works with the LGBTQIA+ programs and education on campus to help provide students with support and resources. The extended acronym LGBTQIA + stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and numerous other communities under the "umbrella" of gender and sexuality.

"You can find stories of children as young as three or four that the boys don't want to pick up and play with a doll because that's a 'girl toy' [. . .] That's just how they've been conditioned without knowing it," said Riel-Elness.

Riel-Elness said this kind of conditioning comes in many different ways throughout society. "Where we see the issue still is in television programs, commercials and children's toys. We see all the girls' toys are purple and pink, brightly colored, very fluorescent. Boys' toys are meant to be rough, rugged, and they're very dark colors," Riel-Elness elaborated.

As a parent, Desireé Wiesen-Martin finds these gender expectations for children to be true. She is an assistant professor and the interim chair of the Women and Gender Studies program, but Wiesen-Martin's main area of study is victimization of women and children, primarily women.

"For my own parenting style, I think because of the academic area I went into, my eyes were opened to how much socialization goes into our beliefs and actions. I've tried to consciously expose my child to a lot of different things," Wiesen-Martin said.

Wiesen-Martin offered an example from her own experience, "When [our daughter] was younger, she took a turn towards really liking dinosaurs. We shopped in what's traditionally known as the boys' section for her, because that's where we could find dinosaur clothes. Her favorite colors are black and red, and we've really tried to help her embrace that. I always thought it was a bit morbid, but she actually told me one time that ‘black is the most beautiful color because it's the combination of all colors together.'"

For parents who wish to confront gender stereotypes while raising their children, Wiesen-Martin recommended parents be open, willing to listen, as well as non-judgmental.

"My daughter, for example, had this favorite long sleeved T-shirt. It had bright orange, [and] had a dinosaur on it that had on sunglasses. She just loved this shirt. So we're out at a park, and there was another kid that had the same exact t-shirt." Her daughter was mistaken for a male, which Wiesen-Martin was unconcerned about.

"I just threw out [in conversation], her very feminine name. The other mother goes, ‘is your child a girl? Why is she wearing that shirt? That's from the boys' section.' And I said, ‘well, because she likes dinosaurs.' I don't think [the other mother] was being mean or aggressive about it, she was just stumped."

"As parents, we're socialized into this very gendered world," Wiesen-Martin explained. "But we can make concentrated efforts to confront it. There are different types of parents. There are those who purposefully reinforce gender, and there are those who understand that gender is socially constructed and that we can get out of our constructions of gender."

When she became pregnant with her daughter, however, Wiesen-Martin did choose to have the gender revealed. "When we had the opportunity to find out the sex of our child, I took it. But what that meant was, she was given a biological sex, right? Biologically, she's a female. We started calling her 'she.' We came up with a name and it's a very feminine name. So we were gendering her from the beginning."

Wiesen-Martin elaborated on the concept of biological classifications. "We are gendering a fetus, without them being able to chose. Biological sex is one thing, because that's biological, but gender is not biological. [. . .] It just so happens that if you have a penis, that it is associated with blue. But what does that have to do with anything? Anyways, the only reason that association happens is because we, as a society, have decided it - and we can decide against it."

Historically, Wiesen-Martin brought up, pink used to be for boys and blue for girls, "Because pink is just a lighter shade of red, and red is a powerful color."

Compared to other generations, Riel-Elness comments that there has been little noticeable change in society as a whole. "We make jokes about the 1950s where men were working and women stayed in the household; the ones cleaning, cooking, doing all those chores. [. . .] We know that more women are [now more] out in the work field, but we understand that women are still not being paid equally to men in similar positions. So men are still unofficially expected to be the breadwinner, the person that's supposed to bring home the most amount of money. "

Director of the Center of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, Martin Olague finds these roles to be complex."My wife for example, identifies as a feminist. So what does this mean for a our relationship while raising two boys? How I view the world? Am I a feminist?"

Wiesen-Martin addressed this phenomenon,"We are socialized in a certain way, growing up in a world that is very patriarchal, where men are valued more than women. We still have to address that in our programing."

"For example," Wiesen-Martin continued. "This is Women's History Month. There might be people who say, ‘well, why don't we have a men's history month?' Well . . . every day is men's month! In this, men vs. women, male vs. female simplified dichotomy, men have always had power positions. So a lot of the advancements that women did  were not celebrated in the same way. I would argue that it continues. [. . .] The patriarchy still exists."

Faculty on campus have recognized these gender stereotypes among students. UWRF is a school with a large agricultural focus, which has lead to a division between "city" and "rural" students. "One of the things I think we normally associate farm work and hard labor with, is being more of a man's work," Riel-Elness elaborated. "But we have a very high percentage of women who are going into agriculture or ag business or ag related fields. And so, it's really reframing what that type of work means and who can do that work."

Additionally, Wiesen-Martin has noticed a recurring issue in the science and math departments regarding women's interest in mathematics. "What I see when I teach, is that oftentimes, those who identify as female really think that they're not doing well. They have math anxiety at greater levels. [...] They're getting high As and Bs on their tests, but there's some research in areas like math where girls oftentimes feel as though they are failing. Whereas if people who identify as male are getting low Bs and Cs, it's a success. I think that has a lot to do with socialization. Are boys allowed to fail more? Do we have different standards for how we socialize boys and girls around failure?"

Riel-Elness simplifies the effects of stereotypes. "[Stereotypes] ultimately are harming us as a society. It puts everyone into a box, and if you don't fit within that box, you're considered different, and nobodywantsto be different."

Riel-Elness is a member of the UWRF campus Center of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, of which the Gender and Sexuality Outreach program is only a few years old. "It was really started by students," Riel-Elness said. "We had students that were apart of the student senate, student government association who identified with the LGBT community. Realizing that we don't have dedicated staffing or resources in support for those students on campus, they were the ones who really advocated within student government and also to the administration that [this program] is something necessary. Their efforts are really why I'm here."

Campus has limited resources available to students with questions regarding gender stereotyping.Riel-Elness compared the campus efforts to a slow moving machine. He recommended that if students had suggestions to bring them to his office or contact the center via email or social media.

Olague agreed, "I think that we need to have a focus on campus of exactly what is gender equity looks like."

Riel-Elness had a simple metaphor for understanding the difference between equity and equality. He said, "Equality is giving every person around the world a pair of shoes so everyone has one. Equity is giving everyone around the world a pair of shoes that fits. So equality is the start to the conversation."

"This [focus] could be in classrooms, speakers [and] campus programming," Olague added. "We need to have a strategy on campus on all levels to help students grow and understand these issues."

Brooklyn Jenness, co-president of GSA on campus said, "The campus could definitely be doing more to address gender and sexuality. Right now, [...] the campus allows us to have meetings and funds some of the things we request. This is a great step."

One step the campus has made for students was the 2017 Preferred Name Policy, which allows students to indicate their prefered first and middle name to all documents outside of legal matters.

"But the university should have some kind of seminar, or have a speaker that fits into the LGBTQIA + community come in and speak to every student during registration," said Jenness.

Wiesen-Martin recommended that in posters and promotions for our school, campus should ensure they include a wide range of diverse people in photographs. She said, "The pictures that we put out for our university matter, and we want to make sure that all of our messaging is inclusive."

As individuals, students are urged to challenge the status quo. Jenness stated,"Students can start by opening their minds and listening to conversations about these topics. People can start to ask people their pronouns before assuming them, and consistently using [the prefered pronouns] throughout the year could help fight stereotypes."

Riel-Elness advised that students that are straight and cisgender speak up and use their privilege to change the conversation, "It starts with the college environment. Be an advocate, reach out to resources, listen to talks about the subject, inform yourself."

Gender and sexuality is a complex, difficult subject to approach, and Riel-Elness recommends that students "Be comfortable with being uncomfortable." The campus, slow-moving machine that it is, cannot take these steps alone.